What Body Fat % Do I Need to Be?

I get asked a lot of questions about competing, prepping, training, post comp, diet & nutrition that I’m always happy to answer and always try to provide detailed explanations of  the what’s, how’s, why’s and where possible to bust stupid myths and stereotypes should it be appropriate.

Todays’ question is relatively straightforward though.

A few weeks ago, I received a message from a competitor who was 4 weeks out from her show and she was thinking of pulling out, because she was sitting at 13% body fat and needed to get down to 9-10%. I’ve since seen it popping up on message boards recently, probably because we’re right in the middle of comp season and there are a lot of people apparently stressing out about their body fat % levels and whether they will be ready or not.


So the question is:

What % Body Fat do I need to be to compete in a given category?

Well the answer to that is actually quite simple.

It doesn’t matter.

Alright, it does matter, but in reality you’re not being judged on your body fat %, you’re being judged on how well you fit the criteria for your category.

No federation or competition lines up their competitors and measures their body fat % before they get on stage. None.

Could you imagine the chaos that would cause?

Everybody looks different even at the same body fat % depending on their muscle mass.

A picture comparring two females at 15% body fat

There are also many ways of measuring body fat%, all of which will give you a different number. I know as a figure competitor that I usually sit at about 8% (skin folds) and have been completely pissed off if I’ve had a dexa to confirm that and its put me at 12%!

It messes with your head.

Now, because I’ve competed before, it’s much easier – I know exactly what look I’m going for, for each federation and level that I compete at and if I don’t look like it, then I keep going until I do – no matter what the skin folds, scales or dexa says.

If you have never competed before then how do you know what to aim for, especially as different federations go for slightly different looks, and worse than that, the same federation in different states with different judging panels may reward different looks…it can be difficult to try and fit a category across all of them, so what do you do?

All the federations generally have reference images on their websites of their preferred look for each category, so that is what you judge your stage readiness by. They may even have a detailed description of exactly what the ‘must have’s’ or ‘must not have’s’ are, but not one of them will have a specific body fat % number or range specified.


** Image Courtesy of INBA Australia and Melita Jagic Photography **


Bikini competitors – does your chosen federation specify ‘no visible abs’? Do they specify shapely, toned, trained look with no muscle separation. If you have muscle separation then you’re too lean. If you have visible abs, you’re too lean. Either soften yourself up (happy days! it means you get to eat a bit more!) or if you think you’ve got enough muscle mass then aim for a fitness/sports model category instead.

Fitness competitors – does your chosen federation look for 6 pack abs and slight separation in the legs with shapely shoulders? Do you look like the reference picture? If not, then you’re not ready – either keep going with your prep or adjust your sights to another competition to give yourself a bit more time or you could try softening up and going for the bikini category – if you look like the reference pictures.

Figure competitors. Do you have muscle separation…especially in the legs? No? You’re not lean enough. Again, keep going if you think you’ll get there in time (without killing yourself of course), or if there is another show available a bit further away, reset your sights on the longer term so you can get there safely.

If you have competed before, then you’ve got a bit of an advantage, you’ve got a much clearer idea of what you need to look like, your stage weight will give a you solid target to aim for at your next show – so get close to your last stage weight and compare yourself with the reference images.  How did you go last time? Look at photos, how did you compare with the winners/placegetters? If you won – fantastic – step up to the next level. How do they look? What do you need to do to go to that next level? If you didn’t win/place – were you too lean? Too soft? Not carrying enough/too much muscle?

Now it looks like I’ve answered a question with a ton of other questions, but these are the type of questions you actually do need to be asking yourself during your prep and you’ll notice that none of them require you to know your actual body fat %.



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